Sitting in an anchored boat 15 feet from a violently overflowing cofferdam on a rainy winter night is not my idea of the idyllic Illinois fishing experience. But this story isn't about barefoot boys, poles propped between toes, snoozing on the banks of sun-kissed streams. This is about the Rock River, particularly the fast-flowing stretch of the Rock that passes through the town of Oregon, Illinois. It's the stretch you see as you cross the Route 64 bridge on your way to Galena or Mississippi Palisades State Park. And this is also about Moe Kielsmeier, co-owner with his wife Nancy of Moe's Bait Shop, which sits hard against the Rock just upstream from the bridge.
Moe thinks the Rock is the most underrated fishery in northern Illinois. If a visitor to his bait shop should appear skeptical of Moe's claims about the Rock, he's likely to grab a handful of jigs from his counter, usher the skeptic down to his aging 16-foot boat, and motor 50 feet or so out to where the water rushing over the dam has carved out some nice walleye holes. If it happens to be a cold night in late November, so be it.
Moe was disappointed with the fishing that night, but I was jubilant--the five walleyes I caught, although only in the one-pound range, happened to be the only walleyes I have ever caught anywhere within a 200-mile radius of Chicago. The Fox, Kankakee, and Illinois rivers get a lot of fanfare for the quality of their walleye fishing, but on the few occasions I tried these rivers I caught only the walleye's low-rent relative, the sauger. Anglers on those rivers were typically evasive about the locations of the best walleye lairs, while Moe gleefully leaks the secrets of the Rock. "That's the favorite hole of one of my buddies," he announced at one point. "He'd kill me if he knew I told you about it." About another spot he said, "That's where the turbine used to be. There's a deep pocket down there filled with really big flathead catfish."
The bait shop is Moe's labor of love. He's owned it for five years. Nancy runs it during the day, while Moe works at the Sundstrand Aviation Power Unit in Rockford. Snapshots extolling the area's bounty of walleye, catfish, smallmouth bass, deer, and wild turkey cover sections of the store like wallpaper. The shop is frequented by the local "river mice," preadolescent boys with muddy boots who spend a lot of time deciding whether to spend their dollar and change on a few walleye jigs, a half-dozen minnows, or a couple of Mountain Dews.
Moe initially looks to be one of those guys who doesn't take a lot of guff--a big, bearded, taciturn man turning to face you, planting his hands on the counter, and furrowing his brow. You want to make your request and not mispronounce the name of whatever lure or rig you remember being mentioned in the Tribune or Sun-Times fishing reports. But confront him with any question--What's biting? Where are they hitting? What kind of ducks are those swimming around under the bridge?--and Moe's off and running. He loves to talk.
When I visited Moe again in April, the fishing was more erratic. "The flooding we had in '93 completely changed the walleye-holding structure of the Rock around here," he explained. "It moved an awful lot of sand around." Moe and fellow members of the Rock River Valley Fishing Club have been trying to figure out the new structure. "We did discover that the high flood waters induced a lot of walleyes to move into the creeks. They stayed in the creeks and had a superspawn. Now the river's full of eight-inch walleye. Come 1996, these fish will be mature and we're going to have a banner year." Moe's Bait Shop regular and Rock River booster Peter Paladino, who's Region One fisheries administrator with the Illinois Department of Conservation, heartily concurs. "It's going to rock 'n' roll on the Rock for walleye."
Knowing that even in the most productive waters game fish are notoriously fickle biters, Moe always keeps a few really big Rock River walleyes swimming around in his 500-gallon aerated minnow tank. He likes to have evidence to back his claims. He keeps them until somebody brings in a new bunch of lunkers. Then he tags the captive fish and puts them back in the river, none the worse for wear. If fishermen catch them again, they can identify them by their tags and learn how much they've grown and whether or not they've moved to a different part of the river; they can then report that information to the DOC.
But the same weather that's going to make 1996 so good for fishing put a whammy on it this year. The river flooded in February, and then water levels fell uncharacteristically low. Temperatures yo-yoed, not staying warm long enough to convince the walleye to switch from their torpid winter mode to their hungry, horny spring mode. A few lucky anglers hit the river during those rare windows of opportunity when water temperatures and levels were just right. But most got skunked.
Meanwhile Paladino and his staff were in Oregon electroshocking walleye (which stuns but doesn't kill the fish) and hoop netting in several nearby sections of the Rock. The DOC was hoping to net a lot of mature female walleyes so they could strip their eggs. Walleyes don't naturally spawn in most Illinois lakes and rivers, so the DOC collects eggs from the few Illinois waters where they do and hatches them in nurseries to stock elsewhere.
Local anglers supplied the boats to get the DOC personnel out on the river. Moe and Nancy volunteered the use of their bait shop basement, where the captured fish were weighed, stripped of eggs (pushed out of the females by massaging their bellies), jaw-tagged for later identification, and then released back into the river.
But the DOC hauled in very few walleye; only 15 female walleyes and 1.9 million eggs were collected, not enough to justify classing Moe's stretch of the Rock as a "brood water"--a stretch of heavy spawning activity. The DOC will still be able to put in about 170,000 "supplemental" walleyes this year, many obtained through swaps with other states--Illinois channel cats for Minnesota walleyes, for instance--but their small haul from his stretch of the river dismays Moe. "I think the DOC was being considerate to fishermen by not going in and disturbing some of the more productive walleye holes," he rationalizes.
Moe's lived here all his life, and he thinks Oregon and its environs beat anything southern Wisconsin has to offer. He even has ambitious ideas for how to bring in more visitors. But some hesitation too: "I don't want this area to become another Wisconsin Dells." He says his offer several years ago to buy a building across the street was turned down by R.R. Donnelley and Sons, the printing firm that owns it. He envisioned an artists' colony there, with studios, galleries, and maybe some retail shops. Now a local community group is negotiating with Donnelley to obtain the building for use as a river heritage museum, an art center, and possibly a visitors' center.
Moe would also like to start a canoe livery someday. The Rock River has a drop of three to five feet per mile, as opposed to the one-foot-a-mile drop typical of most Illinois rivers, and its riffles and quiet eddies alternate with stretches of white water, making it perfect for canoeists, says Moe. Unlike, say, the Fox River, which just sort of moseys along, the Rock River sings.
When I last saw Moe in early May, a press corps of about 60 outdoor writers, several state DOC bigwigs, and guest speaker Governor Jim Edgar had just departed the Ramada Inn in Rock Falls. Sponsoring the event was the Blackhawk Waterways Convention & Visitors Bureau, which touts the economic and cultural virtues of Carroll, Lee, Ogle, and Whiteside Counties. Moe and a couple of buddies had taken some of the writers and DOC bigwigs out on the river. The fishing was mediocre.
Not too long ago, Moe called me with some good news. "The DOC out of Springfield just contacted me to help them head up an outing with Babe Winkelman (a television celebrity angler). A TV crew would come in to film Babe fishing for smallmouth on the Rock. They might film it right here."
I put in a call to Paladino. He concurred that he had heard the Winkelman rumors. He too had some good news. "We just discovered that there's jillions of fingerling smallmouth bass in the Rock. We thought last year's flooding would ruin the smallmouth spawn. Flooding typically creates fast water, which washes away the gravel where the bass spawn. But this time the water got so high that it didn't have anywhere to go. We think the flooding actually created new pockets of still water. So it's gonna be rock 'n' roll for bass and walleye."
For more information on the Oregon and other places along the Black Hawk Trail, see the Visitors' Guide in this issue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Richard Younker.